Theater artisans are renowned for making up or repurposing items and products.  When the item we really need is just not out there to be purchased or found, we invent what we need.  I’ve been at the Children’s Theatre Company for 32 years, and we frequently make up tools to help streamline a process.  Often it’s to help with a physical problem or to make the job more efficient so that it doesn’t take forever.  I am blessed with easy-going and creative carpenters in our shop who are always up for inventing tools.  I’m also a fan of shopping in different departments of the hardware store to see if there’s a tool out there that I can repurpose to suit my needs.  I didn’t think I had anything unusual in my shop until I started looking through things and thought, “maybe someone doesn’t know about this….”


Concrete Finishing Trowels

The round edges on this trowel will eliminate leaving lines as you try to get a nice, even, flat finish.  This is a great tool for fake sidewalks, plaster, stucco, concrete blocks, and knockdown effects.   During last month’s Webinar Summit:  Scenic Artists Offstage, Anthony Phelps referenced this tool in his brick demonstration.

You can get them 12” wide and up to 24” wide.  The price varies from $15 to $55 depending on the brand, finish, and size.  The one I have pictured here runs around $16-$17, and I originally bought it at Home DepotMenards also has it cheaper.   

Dry it off thoroughly after you’ve cleaned it, or it will rust.  The two I have are about 20 years old, and I originally bought them for about $12.  I never bought the larger size because I felt it would be too awkward to use on theatrical scenery.  Perhaps the right project for the 24” trowel just hasn’t come through my shop yet.   

I am using Sto Medium Sand DPR Finish on the sample.  I buy it locally from a company that sells finishes for outdoor retaining walls.  It’s really strong and holds up well on stage, and can also be tinted.  I thin it down with water and do a scratch coat over the substrate first so that the finish layer doesn’t slide around when I’m trying to smooth it.  Then I brush a roughly level application around and then smooth with the trowel.

Mops

Try this the next time you need a grassy look on a deck.  The red model in the photo below is nice because you can use the retractable cap to squeegee out the excess paint.  They work like an oversized feather duster that’s already attached to a stick.

Lining Sticks

I use lining sticks made from 72” and 36” door thresholds.

This idea is from John Pitts, who was the Charge at the Metropolitan Opera when I was given a personal tour of their spaces during a travel/study grant about 20 years ago.  The thresholds have a built-in bevel, are made of aluminum, are extremely lightweight, and NEVER WARP.  Use white Gaff tape on the edges for easy cleaning removal, or you will be sorry later when the paint builds up and starts to flake off. 

I made the mistake of using black tape once when I was out of white.  The show had miles of straight black lines, and I couldn’t see what I was painting because of the black edge.  It drove me crazy, and I ripped it off and went out and bought some white tape.

The carpenters built fold-down handles for storing the long-handled liners upright with less of a footprint.  The folding handle is also better for my shorter painters. The handles are built for “tall me,” and my shorter painters can angle them to help get the handle out of the way as your arm passes down the length of the stick.   I really want to try Donna Wymores’ idea of using adjustable flag pole holders.  To attach the handles to the thresholds, you’ll need flat-head machine screws that sit flush into the holes that you will have to drill into the metal.  Place the thresholds upside down over a wood block to support the curve while you drill the holes. Otherwise, you will bend the piece.  My lining sticks have black tape on the edge where the bolt and wing nut protrudes and your brush might hit the bolt.  The black tape reminds me that it’s the side I don’t want to use.  You will have to watch for drips along the bevel edge.  I usually drag the bevel edge over extra bogus paper or keep a rag hanging from my overalls. 

 

Restaurant Whisk

I bought mine almost 30 years ago, back in the pre-Google dark ages, when you had to order a physical catalog first.  So I can’t tell you where I actually bought these.  I never have lumpy starch using these, and their extra-long length helps keep your hands away from boiled water splashes.  These are 18” long, and you can get them up to 48” now.  Here is a good place to start your search.

Drywall and Concrete brushes

These are the best brushes for doing weathered straight grain wood texture and weathered pine texture.  This is just a representative assortment of what I have.  These brushes have very stiff plastic bristles, and they dig into a texture like Jaxsan easily.  I like to have bristles of different stiffness and different sizes.   I cut some of them in half so that I have smaller sizes, which help to get different pine knot looks.  The brush with cut-out bristles is a little softer and also works for some subtractive faux glazing.  I found my brushes at Home Depot, but their stock varies.  These could be found at any hardware store.

I like to use Jaxsan, which comes in white, black, tan, or grey, making it the base color.  (Why purchase a paint base color when the texture comes pre-tinted?) I only had black available in the shop when this was written, so the pictures are a dark to a light version of weathered wood to show the texture.

Finished Sample

Next is a picture of a wood treatment from a show where we used white and tan Jaxan as our base texture and color.  The show took place in a hockey arena, and the portals and back wall had to look like the entire upper two-thirds were made of pine boards.  This “arena” also had to fly out, so we could not make the portals heavy and hard-covered.  We asked the designer to incorporate the size of Coroplast panels into the design.  We taped off boards and textured the lightweight Coroplast panels to look like pine boards.  We used black Coroplast so that we wouldn’t have to line between the faux boards to heighten the separation.  The texture was applied using these brushes and a set of roller grainers that I keep just for texture.  Watery glazes were then used to add more layers.  If the glaze is diluted and thinned enough, the color will sink into the crevices and reinforce the wood grain. The paint glazing is quick, but the dry time is slow.   When it was finished (there was something like 60 panels), we had people who believed the set was really built out of pine boards.  

 

Magnet on a stick

 This is not necessarily a repurpose of a tool, but I wish I had bought one years before I actually looked for this one.  It’s a little spendy, but it’s very handy for walking around and picking up staples. I bought mine through Graingers for around $40-$50.  I couldn’t find this particular magnet sweeper on their site anymore, but they now have models on wheels priced from $40 up to $350.  I found variations on Amazon and Harbor Freight, but I wasn’t sure how well some of them would work.

 

Thumb lever air gun with extender

 I have not flogged anything in over 30 years.  We use our shop compressor to blow off charcoal.  It’s faster, less fatiguing, and you can actually pinpoint your erasing better.  It works best to blow the charcoal off sideways and not directly into the drop.  I have the extension on this air nozzle because it is for drops and floors painted down on the deck (less crouching or kneeling to reach).  I have air nozzles without extensions for working on our paint frame.  I bought mine at Grainger.  When using the air nozzles, it is a good idea to wear hearing protection and a dust mask.

 

36“ Paint Shield

 These are great for quick masking, and if you have two, you can place them for corners.   I found mine at Home Depot.

 

Hopper Gun

This tool is for spraying aggregate for textures.  I use it for textured ground cloths or decks and also for spraying a light coating of latex on the underside of ground cloths to keep them from stretching or slipping (that happens when scenery units with casters are moved over ground cloths).  You can find hopper guns through Home Depot, Grainger, Amazon, and probably a few other sources.  

 

Grout Bags

Think of these as oversized cake decorating icing bags.  The bags I have are from Home Depot and measure 23” by 12”.  Each bag costs a little over $8.  I use them for various purposes, but mainly for “icing” in the grout between fake bricks.

I use them with cake decorating tips all the time for different purposes.  Don’t use the standard tips in the large grout bags without a coupler.  They won’t stay in place very well and might get lost in the goop.  You can also switch out to different tips without emptying the bag if you use a coupler.  You can use standard cake decorating bags if you don’t want to use large grout bags. 

The couplers come in two sizes.  Here is the standard size coupler.

Here is an example of the large tip coupler.  It looks like the standard coupler, but the standard size decorating tips do not fit, and you will need to buy the large tips.  You will have to trim the bag if you want the large-size coupler to work. 

 

The regular size decorating tips that I use the most are a #5, a #10, and a #12.  I used the large size coupler and tips to decorate a 6 foot wide fake cake for a production of Go Dog Go. The large tips pictured are a 125 rose tip, a 4B open star tip, and a 1m open star tip.

 


MADE FROM SCRATCH OR MODIFIED TOOLS

Rolling Kneeler/Chair

This is a nice item that our carpenters helped me to create.  I was getting up there in age, I have arthritis, and I’ve had both hips and one knee replaced.  Projects down at floor level that required getting up and down a lot were hard.  This is a purchased garden kneeler that has handles to help you get up and down.  It comes in two sizes, and you can find it at Gardeners Supply Company You can find the smaller version cheaper at other sites.  We welded up the rolling base to specifically fit the garden kneeler.  You can turn it upside down to make it a chair (or a place to set and spill your paint).  When I’m stapling drops, I kneel and roll around the edge—no need to keep getting up to reposition to another area of the drop.  The carpenters made three of these so that other painters and carpenters could use them as well. 

Foam carving tools

We do a lot of large foam hills and snow mounds, and the carpenters once again were smart.  These are old band saw blades strapped to handles. 

The carpenters built a giant rasp out of plywood and expanded metal, and added two handles for smoothing the large rolling hills.  It works very well for smoothing out all of the bumps leftover after rough carving with a knife. 

 

Paint Bucket Carriers

When I started at the Children’s Theatre Company, they had wooden paint bucket carriers with the handle on one side and no wheels.  The carriers themselves were heavy even when empty, and once two buckets of paint were loaded, they took both arms to move.  The carpenters designed these metal carriers that were much lighter and ergonomic with the handle in the middle.  I didn’t want something with wheels because I didn’t always want to roll things across a drop.  I asked them to add the hooks so that bamboos could rest along with the handle.  The roller pan carrier is on wheels because the handle on the side makes it awkward to pick up.

Marker Trammel Point

 We had a show deck that required miles of oversized circles, and we were looking for a way to draw and ink them all in one.  A carpenter welded this up for me very quickly, and we’ve used it for years.  It fits Fine Sharpies and the skinnier Marks-A-Lot markers.  It saved us a ton of time and only cost me a case of beer. 

Multiple Brush Holder

 My assistant at the time, Rebekah Jaeger, made this tool, and she painted most of the decking for Babe with it.  The design had large-scale grass blade clumps in an assortment of spacings.  We didn’t have a lot of time to spare on this deck, and we wanted something that would give us multiple brush strokes in one pass.  It worked beautifully.  You have to make sure that the brushes are lined up exactly evenly.  We could have up to 9 brushes loaded (which we didn’t do), and we could stagger their placement to give us the variety depicted in the rendering.   We used cheap aluminum jelly roll pans to load the paint.  The tool was a little heavy, but Rebekah did a very nice job with it.  It has mini cell foam in the center to help the brushes stay in place.

Eric Van Wyke designed the show.

Show Picture Courtesy of Eric Van Wyke

Pipe Holder

These are rod carriers that we use when we are treating pipes or tubes of any kind.  Hang a sturdy rod between the two brackets and sleeve your pipe or PVC onto the rod.  Now you can rotate the pipe and paint all the way around without having to wait for one side to dry first.  I have another larger version for heavier pipes.  Screw them into a plywood table to use. 


Check out this other Scenic Route Blog article!

Schlepitchka and the Rewards of Tool Making!

 


Mary Novodvorsky
(She/Her/Hers)
Charge Artist
The Children’s Theatre Company
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Mary started painting as a scenic artist in 1988 and has been the Charge Artist at the Children’s Theatre Company since 1990.  She also worked as an electrician, lighting designer, stage manager, and costumer before becoming a full-time Charge Artist.  Occasionally, when time permits, she freelances and does some design work.  When not painting, she’s usually working in her gardens trying to create an urban pollinator oasis for birds, bees, and butterflies.  The Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is the largest children’s theatre in the United States and was the recipient of the 2003 Tony Award for Best Regional Theater. 

 

2 Comments
  1. Omanie 4 weeks ago

    That is brillint, Mary! I love learning new ways to do things. 😀Thank you for sharing some of yours and for describing the tools and the way they are used so clearly.

  2. Nicole Deibert 1 week ago

    Rounding the corners on the trowl is such a great idea. Thank you!

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